2010: 43. The Hemingses of Monticello

“A number of years back, while at the Massachusetts Historical Society for a speaking engagement, I had the chance to read through the original version of Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book…”

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, Annette Gordon-Reed

       This is a phenomenal book. I bought it in an airport, waiting for a much delayed flight, so I feel like I have to thank AirTran for being such a crap airline, or I’m not sure I would have ever gotten around to picking it up or spending four hours straight reading it.  So, as a preamble, hurray for the state of modern transportation.

       Anyway, this is a scholarly examination of the Hemings family, better known as the family of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress.  In fact, the relationship is more complex than that - Sally was Jefferson’s wife’s sister, such that she and her brothers and sisters were the slaves of her father and his white daughters.  Because of their relationship to one of America’s most famous men, there is more information about this family available than almost any other slave family in American history, and it allows Gordon-Reed to write a history that is unlike any other that I’ve read before.  And she absolutely knocks it out of the park.  She not only writes a well-written history of the family from the earliest recorded family member, Elizabeth Hemmings through Sally Hemmings’s generation (and some discussion of her children and their descendants), but she also cogently analyzes the many, many difficult issues that we as modern reader need to grapple with in trying to understand the incomprehensible relationships that existed between these people.  Gordon-Reed tries to make a world where a brother-in-law’s wealth exists largely because of his ownership of his wife’s brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles understandable to a modern sensibility.  And, of course, it is not understandable - and never really can be, but Gordon-Reed grapples with the issues there as best as anyone possibly could.

      And, oh, there is so much here to deal with here - more than I can give it in a blog review, really - I think this is a book to really read and chew over, not for me to flippantly go through while I’m facing my 25 book blog backlog.  But to touch on one issue, I wanted to say that while it’s all fascinating - and while I appreciate that the book isn’t a book about Jefferson, but about a whole family that has until recently been erased from history, there is no doubt that the Jefferson stuff is some of the most thought-provoking in the book.*   And even here, Gordon-Reed draws our focus from Jefferson to Sally Hemings, and helping us try understand her, and her choices.** 

      So, go and read it.  It won the Pulitzer, deservedly, and it’s a necessary book as we, even all this time later, try to grapple with what slavery wrought on this country.

Date/Place Completed:  June 2010; D.C.

Categories: Non-Fiction; American President Project

*Ah, perhaps this is my euro-centric bias! Or have I been spoiled by years of dead white man history.  Or maybe, at the end of the day, the fact is that Thomas Jefferson is one of the most interesting and contradictory men in history, such that he’s always going to pull focus in a work. 

** Like the fact that she (and her brother) could have stayed in France and been free, but that she instead came home and lived the rest of her life with Jefferson, and then using that as a starting point to really try to grapple with what their relationship was - oppression? love? both? 

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017